June 1, 2010
The Times, They Are a'iPadding
So, I got one. My iPad arrived late last Thursday evening, and I've been experimenting with it ever since. I'll be posting my general impressions of the device on another blog entirely, sparing those of you who don't care about such things from the long series of posts that will follow. However, I will be exploring the media apps and potential of the device as a journalistic tool right here on this blog, and I'd like to start with one that's bound to attract some attention: The Times iPad app.
Here's the deal: £9.99 buys you one month of use of the app. The download purchase price covers the first month, and it's in-app purchasing through your iTunes account from then on. As far as I can see there's no link with payment for the forthcoming paywalled sites right now. And what you're buying is not access to a website - this is downloaded content. The first time you open the app each day, you're prompted to download that day's issue. In other words, this app uses the internet, but not the web. Oh, and you don't get the Sunday Times. That will have it's own app, which is currently in production.
By my reckoning, you're paying less than 40p per issue, which is a chunk cheaper than the paper product, which is a pound a throw right now, but you're getting less content for your money. This is more the highlights of the paper, rather than the whole thing.
The Good: The navigation is surprisingly fluid and intuitive. You can either read the the whole issue as you might the paper edition, swiping through each section in turn. Or, you can pick and choose the stories you want to read from the synopses pages that start each section.
And yes, the sections do mirror the print sections very obviously indeed. You can see this most clearly when you pop up the navigation slider at the bottom of the screen (right). This allows you to quickly flip through the various stories in each section and leap to the story.
I like the integration of slideshows and videos into the app, too. Videos are the one element you need to be online to use, after the initial download, and play quickly and crisply. The slideshows, which sit in a picture slot and which you can swipe through, are a nice touch - showing the strength of the app over the paper version.
But the interface element I like the most can actually be found on the opinion pages. This presents all the opinion pieces on a single page, and when you chose a different writer, their piece slides out of the list, as the currently displayed one slides back in. It's a nice visual touch, and one that works very well. I've read all the opinion pieces in the last four issues - which I've never done in the paper version. Oh, and the leader pieces function in the same way.
The Bad: The typography's somewhat dodgy in the app. There are several pages where the text just looks plain ugly. This tends to be in the places where they're working too hard to replicate the print layout, and suggests that the columns are just too narrow to get the text looking nice. I've never seen the ugly text in the wider-column opinion area, for example.
Also, despite some of the nice UI touches mentioned above, I really don't feel that this app is working very hard to take advantage of the range of possibilities offered by the iPad. There's no linking at all (even internal), beyond the contents-style pages, which seems a crying shame, and no real interactivity (the ability to make pictures bigger does not count.) If a little more of the inventiveness that was applies to the opinion pages had been applies to the rest of the app, it would be a more compelling experience.
The Ugly: There's no search. I could not believe this, but there's absolutely no search ability at all in the app. I had to hunt through three issues on the device to find an article I want to show my wife. That is insane. This is something that really needs to be included as an update to the app - and its absence makes me wonder if what we're seeing in this app isn't text at all, but a set of images. It would certainly explain this bizarre omission.
The Verdict: I wanted to hate this app, as it goes against my general belief in the linked web, in the concept of sharing and so on. But, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it. I actually found myself viewing it as "paper with added features", rather than "the web with features taken away", and enjoyed it in those terms. The fact that the content is downloaded to the device makes it pretty ideal commute reading, sparing you dodgy WiFi or 3G connections on the major commuter routes, and even the fact that there's less than the whole paper in there makes it pretty easy to digest. I don't regret spending £9.99 on it at this point - but I'm not sure I'll be buying next month's subscription. A lot will depend on how quickly the app develops. If I see several updates in coming weeks, with new features, and fixes to the problems above, I could actually be converted. As it stands, I rather suspect that the novelty will wear off.
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